My husband–being Asian and all–stressed one very important fact the first time I ever met his parents:
“You must eat all your food. Every last grain of rice.”
I questioned it once and all I got was:
“You just don’t waste food.”
So, every time we’ve visited my in-laws, I have diligently eaten every morsel of food on my plate. For the times I just can’t do it, my husband will take over my plate and make sure to finish everything because in the end YOU DON’T WASTE FOOD.
But, one time, I couldn’t finish my meal. So like a good wife, I handed off the responsibility to my husband. The plate sat before him while he and his parents spoke in Mandarin and I started to stare off into space (the byproduct of not understanding the language).
My daydream bubble of a land completely in pink was popped when the in-laws conversation came to an abrupt halt. The mister’s mom donned an “if looks could kill” face, stared him dead in the eye and said:
“Don’t forget your culture.”
He looked down at the half-finished plate in front of him. With a quippy “oh, right,” he grabbed the fork I had left on the plate and started eating.
His dad stared back at him. But, this time, the words didn’t need to be said. He put down the fork and grabbed the chopsticks to finish the food.
Don’t forget your culture. My husband’s parents believed in that statement because culture is important. It’s important to understand it, accept it, own it and remember it. One’s culture defines one’s history. It defines entire statehoods, politics, education, even the way we act. It’s our everything.
For those who travel with an open-mind (the most important ingredient in travel), culture is often the number one thing people want to experience. Some travelers try to immerse themselves in the language. Some try to get cultured through the cuisine. Still others visit museums. We prefer all three.
You Can Learn a lot by Visiting a Museum
My husband is an artist. For the longest time, he told me about the importance of art. And you know what, I finally get it. Learning about the history of art is just as important as learning culture by sitting in a bar and talking to locals. Think about it this way: by sitting in the bar, you learn the current way-of-life, the social ebbs-and-flows of the place you’re visiting. But how did their modern way of life happen?
That’s where art comes in. Art movements reflect the socio-political customs of the time. La Liberte Guidant Le Peuple was a painting reflecting the French Revolution and is now an icon of independence.
Art movements even influence architecture. The French Baroque movement influenced the design of Versailles. The Empire State Building was heavily influenced by the Art Deco movement.
So that bar you’re sitting in schmoozing with the locals? Yeah, that place was influenced by art; art that reflects who the locals are, what they believe in and how they live.
What We Learned at the Singapore Art Museum
At one time, Chinese characters were a series of pictograms that closely resembled an object in nature. Over the course of centuries, pictograms morphed into more official-looking words. Then there was a major regime change in the 20th century. When Mao took over, he forced citizens to forget the old culture and embrace the “new” Communist culture. To do that, he changed the most important part of a person’s way of life: the language.
A lot of westerners believe that going to China is “exotic” (I have a serious distaste for that word). They travel there believing that they are experiencing traditional “authentic” Chinese culture. A lot of them fail to realize that what they’re experiencing is modernized new Communist China.
(On a sidenote, if you want to experience traditional and preserved Chinese culture, head to Taiwan!)
But the time between the culture shock and the present-day is much too short for people to forget and that’s why museums are so important. At the Singapore Art Museum, we learned about this cultural change from an artist’s perspective.
The photo below shows the simplification of the Chinese language with an art installation of the character: “bird.” At the end of the artwork, the simplified Chinese for “bird” is grayed and practically kissing the ground, a symbol of a previous culture dismantled by Communism.It’s a bird. And it says “bird.” ART! Warning: this is what happens when you anger Asian parents. Cultured SAM, it’s a beautiful exterior. The National Museum of Singapore
Down the street from SAM is the National Museum of Singapore. The museum houses practically all historical artifacts of Singapore. From the role of women as depicted through art to the importance of streethawkers, it has everything there is to know about Singaporean culture.
Students with a valid college ID get in both museums for a discounted price. So bring your college ID!
Then There are Temples
Much like a mother snips a locket of her toddler’s hair and keeps it creepily on display in a scrapbook, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum houses a certain body part from the man who started Buddhism: Buddha. The body part (thank god it’s not an ear) is none other than a tooth.
I’ve been in more grand temples than the Buddha Tooth Relic Museum (Taiwan comes to mind), but the functionality and design of this museum is amazing. Every floor is dedicated to an important Buddhist custom with a dazzling display of colors to accompany it.
A few hardened budget travelers often tell tourists to forgo the museums as they can sometimes take a giant chunk out of your traveling budget. But, you have no excuse. If you have a college ID, bring it with you. Or you can simply make museums a part of your budget. To get into each of these museums is fairly inexpensive. Cut a few beers out of your travel budget and you can easily afford the museums. You CAN afford culture.
What’s your favorite way to get cultured? Your asian parents ever scare the living daylights out of you?